A Brief History of the New York Times’ Coverage of Selling Art Online

wwwThis week, the New York Times published a trend story about buying art online by Vindu Goel, a technology reporter for the paper. In the piece, which focused primarily on the online art retailer Artsy, Goel wrote:

Since the dawn of the web, companies have tried—and mostly failed—to sell fine art online…online sales…[make] up just 6 percent of the 51 billion euros (about $58 billion, at current exchange rates) of art and antiques sold globally in 2014, according to an annual study conducted for the European Fine Art Foundation, known as Tefaf.

The piece would not to be worth mentioning at all if it weren’t the same trend story that the Times has been publishing for the last two decades, with slightly different numbers plugged into the formula. The paper of record recycles the topic of art collecting online every few months. Consider a piece by the Times’ Scott Reyburn, an art market reporter, published last March, which asks, “Is 2015 going to be the year in which the art market—or at least a sizeable chunk of it—finally goes digital?” A better question might be, if the New York Times keeps publishing the same story about an increasingly banal topic, will it finally become interesting?

I’m amused by the fact that, in pieces published six months apart, both Reyburn and Goel have produced the same article, right down to citing the same Tefaf study for the sake of the same conclusion. In Reyburn’s words, that conclusion is that “fine art has proved stubbornly resistant to the march of e-commerce…[but] sales in the online luxury sector were growing.” For his part, Goel writes, “the most valuable art was still sold the old-fashioned way…[b]ut at the low end, people are now comfortable buying works for a few hundred dollars from sites like Amazon and” In other words, online sales make up a small fraction of the total art market, but the numbers are growing. We didn’t get it the first time! Do it again!

This is not a case of two reporters on different beats overlapping on a single occasion with slightly different takes, or the paper covering a developing story and adding actual, you know, news to it. It’s merely endless rehashing.

The earliest mention in the Times’ archives that I can find about art and the Internet is a beautifully dated article by Steven Henry Madoff, from January 21, 1996, called “Art in Cyberspace: Can It Live Without a Body?”

“The art world,” Madoff writes, “never allergic to a social trend and recovering from the bust that followed the market boom of the 1980s, has been quietly but intently gravitating to that gravityless, giddy boom town in cyberspace called the World Wide Web, where text and pictures are easily displayed on what are known as sites or pages.” He continues, and the world he’s writing about is both so near and so distant from our own that it’s worth quoting at length:

How big is this virtual-art boom? From July through November last year, 4,850 artists, museums, galleries and other arts organizations around the globe opened visual-arts sites in the Yahoo! directory, 1,300 in November alone, almost triple the directory’s July figure. World Wide Arts Resources, another directory on the net, this one covering a dizzying range of art subjects, lists more than 7,000 sites.

Cute! The Times grew increasingly comfortable with the Internet  after this, though the early writing about art online in the paper deals with presentation, rather than anything transactional. Let’s categorize these articles as Times Art Online (TAO) 1.0.

“We regard the Internet as an opportunity to educate a new generation of potential museumgoers about what awaits them,” Harold Holzer, then the vice president for communications at the Metropolitan Museum, told the Times in 1997, in an article by Geanne Rosenberg called “Can Museums Put Art on Virtual Walls?” “It’s another tool for reaching a wider audience.”

History, I suppose, has a way of repeating itself. It’s worth noting here the similarities in sentiment between Holzer’s comment and a quote from another trend story the Times published this week, a TAO 1.0 throwback by Michael Cannell called “New Online Openness Lets Museums Share Works With the World”:

“Most of us see it as part of a museum’s obligation in this century to make this content available in this way,” said Koven J. Smith, director of digital adaptation at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Tex. “The days of art museums being reluctant to release content are drawing to a close.”

(I’ll close this tangent by adding that another (!) trend story published in the arts section of the Times this week–“Fashion Photography Proves Its Value”–is the same story as an article published in the style section one year ago, called “Fashion Photography Is the Art World’s Rising Star”.)

The first in-depth article about art and e-commerce I could find was from November 4, 1999: “Van Gogh Print or Original Oil: The Web Has It” by Jonathan Mandell. This marked the beginning of TAO 2.0, and essentially set a template for every succeeding article about, as Mandell writes, “an industry that, though not in full bloom, is suddenly taking root: the selling of art online.” It’s the same argument made by Goel and Reyburn! Hi again! Unsurprisingly, Mandell presented the industry as a small segment of the global business, but a growing one, and included overconfident predictions and voices of dissent from art world pundits, features that are now a mainstay of this kind of article.

“The secondary art market is going to move to the Internet altogether by the year after next,” Hans Neuendorf, the founder of, told Mandell.

“I’m not convinced that people are going to buy quality art at the click of a mouse,” said the dealer Martha Fleischman, introducing a line of inquiry that the Times has not let go of since.

The question of whether the online sale of art might take off was hardly put to rest in May of 2000, when a painting of unknown provenance sold on eBay for $135,805, with speculation that it might be a 1952 work by Richard Diebenkorn. (”I’m still astonished that anyone would pay that much for something they hadn’t seen,” John Elderfield, then a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, told Judith H. Dobrzynski in the Times.) A week later, Dobrzynski reported that the sale was canceled by eBay, which said the seller had erroneously inflated the price by bidding on it himself.

Dobrzynski might just be the Seymour Hersh of TAO 2.0, conducting legitimate reporting rather than a rattling off of previously known details bent to fit into a tenuous argument. In another article—a “special report”—titled “In Online Auction World, Hoaxes Aren’t Easy to See,” Dobrzynski analyzed dozens of eBay art auctions and found more self-bidders, or “shill bidders,” in eBay’s parlance, some of them acting in cahoots, driving up prices.

By this time, Sotheby’s and Amazon had already gone into business together, selling art online through Sotheby’s website. That partnership was more or less doomed from the start, having been spearheaded by Diana D. Brooks, who, as the Times reported, resigned from the auction house right around the launch of, a consolidation of all of the house’s online sales with the retailer, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to violate antitrust laws in a price-fixing scheme with Christie’s. (“The timing is unfortunate,” Craig Moffett, then the president of, told the paper in a hilarious understatement.) The Sotheby’s/Amazon partnership was over soon after it began.

Once the dot-com bubble burst, around 2001, the art world’s flirtation with e-commerce largely went along with it. TAO 3.0–basically the same as TAO 2.0 but with larger numbers–doesn’t begin in earnest until 2012, with the rise of online artsellers like Artsy, Paddle 8, and Artspace. (“Another Site to Buy Art Online,” went the weary headline of a piece by Randy Kennedy about the latter’s $2.5 million fundraising campaign.) From there came a plethora of redundancy. I’ve arranged the following headlines, all published by the Times in the last two years, into a poem, in free verse:

Art Collections a Click Away.
Online Art Sales to Grow Fast, Global Study Finds—
Art Makes a Move Online

Trying to Shatter Ceiling in Online Art Auctions,
When the Fine Art Market Goes Online;
Purchasing Fine Art Is Increasingly a Click Away.

Note the slant rhyme in “finds” and “online” in stanza one. I don’t think I need to perform any further analysis here, but it’s kind of funny, so I will. A close reading:

Art Collections a Click Away: “[O]nline sales in the United States added up to $287 million in 2012, or less than 2 percent of a $17.4 billion market…Increasingly, buyers have shown a willingness to select art online and pay for it online, too, without ever seeing the original work.”

Online Art Sales to Grow Fast, Global Study Finds: “Online art sites do not threaten galleries and auction houses in the same way Internet availability has undermined the traditional movie, book and music businesses…But the willingness of younger buyers to make their first purchases over the Internet along with the rapid growth of online sites [points] to the future of the sector[.]” (This is, for what it’s worth, a Reuters story that the Times picked up.)

Art Makes a Move Online: “[O]nline sales, where works are both viewed and purchased through the same website, represent 2.4 percent of the art market. Barely a dent, compared to, say, the record music industry, where millions of songs are downloaded every day. But of course, a Taylor Swift mp3 is a lot cheaper and easier to access than a Damien Hirst spot painting…In essence, all of these companies are competing for a new generation of younger professional buyers who are comfortable about shopping online.” (Another Reyburn joint.)

Trying to Shatter Ceiling in Online Art Auctions: “[Christie’s] online-only sales rose 87 percent in the first half of this year compared with a year earlier, but they were still only $14.4 million, compared with its total sales in the six months of $4.5 billion.”

When the Fine Art Market Goes Online: “McKinsey & Company said in a report last April that e-commerce represented just 4 percent of all the luxury goods sold in 2013. Even so, McKinsey added that sales in the online luxury sector were growing at least twice as fast as their offline equivalents.”

Purchasing Fine Art Is Increasingly Just a Click Away: “[O]nline buyers are far more willing to spend thousands—and, in a few cases, hundreds of thousands—to purchase fine art and furnishings on the Internet…So far, online sales remain small[.]”

Each of these stories has a slightly different peg–a new online retailer, or an old online retailer that’s raised money–but each one is interchangeable and comes to the same interpretation. Clearly, art market reporters shouldn’t be barred from writing about online collecting–just this week, one of those online retailers, Paddle8, raised $34 million in new financing and added David Zwirner, one of the most powerful art dealers in the world, to its board. But here’s an idea: if you’re a Times editor and a pitch comes in from a staffer or a freelancer about how the market for online sales of art remains small but more people are willing to buy art online because everyone is awfully comfortable with the Internet now, maybe think about your publication’s previous coverage and, you know, don’t publish the same story over and over and over again? People notice these things.

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